Aztec culture flourished in the highlands of central Mexico between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, AD. As the last in a series of complex urban civilizations in Mesoamerica, the Aztecs adopted many traits and institutions from their predecessors such as the Maya and Teotihuacan. The Aztecs also devised many innovations, particularly in the realms of economics and politics. Aztec civilization was destroyed at its height by the invasion of Spanish conquerors under Hernando Cortés in 1519. The Aztec peoples, who spoke the Nahuatl language, survived and intermarried with the Spaniards; today there are still over one million speakers of Nahuatl in rural areas of central Mexico
Ancient Aztec religion was focused on how the gods, humans and nature were interconnected. There was a strong emphasis on the worship of Huitzilopochtli. The military conquest and ritual sacrifices were all related, and in a great part focused on helping Huitzilopochtli keep the sun strong so that disaster could be averted every 52 years.
The calendar and the sun
The artist carved the Aztec calendar stone in 1479. Naturally, it was dedicated to the sun god. It was a massive carving, 3 feet thick, almost 12 feet across, and weighing almost 25 tones (22.5 tonnes). It was carved from basalt - a solidified lava, this being an area where volcanos were common.
But then it was lost - buried under the central square of Mexico City - for over 300 years.
Then, in 1790, renovations began on the central square (Zocalo) of Mexico City. On December 17th, the massive carving was unearthed, renewing interest in Mexico's ancient cultures. It was the Aztec calendar stone, or, more properly, theCuauhxicalli Eagle Bowl.
Aztec temples were called, by the Mexica people of the empire, Teocalli; God houses. The priests of the Aztec religion went to these temples to worship and pray, and make offerings to the gods to keep them strong and in balance. Often a whole area of a city would be dedicated to religious activities. Some monuments would be made to specific gods. Some were built for specific celebrations. The buildings you probably associate with the Aztec religion are the great pyramids. These were four sided, stable structures that can withstand the earthquakes that are common in the area. These would have stairs up one side, and a flat top, often with a shrine on the top.
Types of sacrifices
Though the human sacrifice is the most talked about, there were actually many types of sacrifices. The people believed that they owed a blood-debt to the gods. They wanted to avert disaster by paying the endless debt. So blood was a common theme - the sacrifice that the gods required. So, animals would be sacrificed, as well as humans. Also, there was ritual blood-letting, where people would cut themselves to offer their blood to the gods.
Human sacrifice was practised to by many people for many centuries. But it was Aztec sacrifice that really took the ritual to new heights. How many people were sacrificed by the Aztecs? We don't know how many were sacrificed over the years, it's possible that some accounts are exaggerated, but it was probably thousands each year - tens of thousands or more all together. Some estimates claim 20,000 a year.
The Aztecs had 18 months in one cycle, and for each of the 18 months there was ritual sacrifice. The victim would be painted as a part of the ritual, they would be placed on a slab where their heart would be removed and held up to the sun. The body would be thrown down the stairs of the temple/pyramid.
There were other ways that humans would be sacrificed - shot with arrows, drowned, burned, or otherwise mutilated. Killing in a fight (like the Roman gladiators) also took place.
Languages similar to the Aztec language have existed in Central Mexico for perhaps 1400 years. As early as 600AD, languages known as Nahuan were spoken by peoples in the area. It is believed that these language speakers came from the north in waves, settling in central Mexico. Speakers of languages such as Nahuatl (the Aztec language) began to gain power, and by 1000AD (CE) it is likely that Nahuatl speakers were the dominant power. One of the last Nahuatl speaking groups to come to the area was the Mexica, who would become a powerful force in the founding of the Aztec empire. As the empire grew, so did the influence of Nahuatl (also called Classical Nahuatl, Mexicano or Aztec). Naturally, those who wanted to get along with the powers-that-were needed to speak it. It was a language of trade, and a language of prestige. It was used in literature extensively.